As we embark on the twenty-first century, one of the favourite pastimes this time of year is looking into the future. Whether it's comedians or supermarket tabloids, everyone pretends clairvoyance. When last we talked about American domestic architecture, I promised to indulge in a bit of prognostication myself. So, peering out the old crystal bay window looking into the future I see...hmmm...can't see much of anything. I seem to be steaming it up. Maybe we ought to look out the other side, at the recent past.
Despite all the eclecticism, and enough revivalism to win over the Devil himself, these trends are not the ones leading into the future. Housing styles seldom suddenly spring to life out of the sheer genius of a single designer, engineer, or architect - not anymore anyway. Today, housing styles, like most other innovations, develop in a lab - in this case out in the field (literally) - in the form of experimental housing, sometimes called folk housing. The surest indicator of future housing styles is that which is today highly experimental. But even here four criteria must be met. First, a house must be economical; second, it must be practical; third, it must be environmentally friendly; and fourth, if not exactly "beautiful," at least not bug-ugly either. It is by this set of criteria that we must measure the viability of various recent housing trends.
After the Second World War, one of the first experimental housing designs came from the military - the venerable Quonset hut. Let's look at how it stacked up to our criteria. It certainly was economical; the military had seen to that. Practical...well, aside from the sloping walls and metallic structural elements, it allowed for an infinite variety of floor plans, provided you could figure a way to put in windows. Environmentally friendly? Effectively insulating them was difficult if not impossible, although few trees had to die to afford the humans of the specie shelter from the cold. Attractive? Well, it wasn't a look designed to endear itself to former GIs who'd had to live in them under conditions they'd mostly like to forget. And while not exactly ugly, with a few flowers, a coat of white paint, and a little decorative trim the term "homely" might come to mind.
Another architectural experiment which developed in the 1950s we call the "A-frame." For once, it's a very aptly descriptive label. It rated high in being cheap and easy to construct, but had the uncomfortable feeling of living in a lofty attic. And like the Quonset, windows were best built in one end or the other. Dormers took the work of a skilled carpenter and drastically increased the cost. Environmentally, though built of wood, they were often situated on "stilts" and were compact, so they tended not to disturb the woodland landscape in which they often sprouted like the oversized pup tents they resembled. As many American then and now have decided, though reasonably attractive, they're a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.
Buckminster Fuller had a good idea. He suggested everyone might like to live in geodesic domes. Though geometrically complex to design and engineer, once the experts did that, any layman with a screwdriver and a putty knife could put one together for a very modest cost per square foot. Unfortunately, they not only tended to look like igloos; they were not much warmer in winter either. Also their circular shape, while offering flexibility, certainly demanded more than a little ingenuity in devising a practical floor plan. And attractive? Well, perhaps - certainly not by mid-twentieth century standards - but, I guess one might get used to them in the future. So this one rates a qualified "maybe."
The real success story to come out of the past century of experimental housing seems to have come from a most unlikely source - the circus. No, not the tent, but the tin cans on wheels the circus people called home. Actually, if you want to press the point, you could even trace their lineage back to European Gypsies. In any case, what started out as a little camping trailer (a term that still makes the manufactured housing industry cringe) before the war, grew like the baby-booming kids living in them. Soon it took far more than a car to pull one. My grandmother once lived in a sweet little Marlette, thirty feet long and eight feet wide; and small as it was, even then it took a truck to move it. By the fifties they were ten feet wide; by the sixties, twelve; and unbelievably each decade since has seen them grow by another foot or two in width and reach up to 80 feet in length.
Economical? You betcha - the cheapest "permanent" housing you can buy in cost per square foot. Practical? Well, I've lived in a couple, and you "adapt." Environmentally friendly? Yes, at least until they get old. Unfortunately, few are recycled. They tend to hang around the rural landscape in some areas looking worse than junked cars. Attractive? Well, they went through an awkward mid-life identify crisis when designers didn't know whether to make them streamline like cars or boxy like houses; but eventually, as they developed into multiple-unit modular homes, boxy won out. Today, there's a sort of uninspired, uniform sameness to them, but they're no worse than most low-end stick-built models. And on the inside, having come from drawing boards of professional designers, they're often far more attractive than their "un-manufactured" cousins.
So, is the future of American domestic architecture to be found in assembly line modules stacked together like so many giant Legos? Frankly, yes, though like many one-word answers, there are qualifications. Actually, practically all housing, today even, is manufactured. The differences have to do with the size of the modules and where they are assembled. Virtually all doors, windows, cabinets, bathroom fixtures, lights, flooring, siding, roofing - you name it - comes from a factory. In a sense, these are all modules. Today and in the future, trend is for the modules to get bigger and bigger, if not "trailer" halves pulled to the site by semi trucks, at least I think we'll see a lot of smaller modules such as whole bathrooms and kitchens take this form. These are the two most expensive rooms in any home. Also, they're the elements in all homes demanding the most careful design/planing and where the greatest cost savings can be found in factory construction. Though it's possible any number of "retro" skins may cover these and other modules - and quite likely that multifamily units will proliferate even more as real estate becomes ever more expensive and limited - if the past is any clue to the future, this century will see ever bigger, more attractive, more economical, and more environmentally friendly homes than ever before, with a greater emphasis on flexibility and versatility in the use of space than ever before too.